When Abbasi checkmated Zardari

The amazing story of the appointment of the new caretaker prime minister, as told by Murtaza Solangi

When Abbasi checkmated Zardari
After wrangling for a month and a half over the appointment of caretaker prime minister who will oversee the 2018 general election, Speaker Sardar Ayaz Sadiq, Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi and Leader of the Opposition Syed Khurshid Shah announced that former Supreme Court chief justice Nasirul Mulk will steer the country in the next few months.

In a war of nerves on the political chessboard, it seems that Asif Zardari, the master player, was checkmated by the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PML-N).

As the headhunting for the caretaker prime minister began early in April this year, all major stakeholders wanted a person of their choice in the office. The miltablishment, the PML-N, the Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) and the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) wanted their favourites to be the top choice. This is despite the fact that legally speaking, the decision was to be made by the prime minister and the leader of the opposition only. Besides, there were many a self-launched candidates who wanted to move to the highest hill in town for two months and update their CVs with an additional item of the top gig in the country.

Nasirul Mulk was acceptable to both the PPP and the PML-N as the new caretaker prime minister of Pakistan

To begin with, Dr Ishrat Hussain, the former of governor of the State Bank quickly launched himself. He had meetings with the ‘big boys’ in Rawalpindi. Watching the impending economic difficulties, he groomed himself for the top slot and flashed his name to his friends in the media. He sent signals to the PPP supremo that since he was acceptable to the ‘boys’, he should be acceptable to them. Zardari had other ideas and the PML-N, who knew his past association with Musharraf, did not even want to consider his name. So Ishrat went down very easily.

Dr Maleeha Lodhi, another favourite of Rawalpindi, was also mentioned left and right in the media but no fishermen in the expedition would throw their hooks for her. She, too, was rejected quickly.

The PTI jumped in by announcing their choices through the media. Khurshid Shah was quick in shooting them down, calling the move amateurish.

Finally, Shah coughed up the names suggested by Zardari. Former Pakistan Cricket Board chief Zaka Asharaf, former defence secretary Saleem Abbas Jilani and former foreign secretary and ambassador to the US Jaleel Abbas Jilani were the names suggested by the Shah of Sukkur when the negotiations began. Initially, Zaka Ashraf was the hottest choice of the former president because of their personal relations going back to their youthful years. The name was quickly shot down by the PMl-N. The PPP pushed hard for Jaleel Abbas Jilani. It was quite hopeful to the end that he would be accepted. These hopes were based on the fact that Nawaz Sharif, locked in a fight for political survival, would not want the matter to be sent to the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) where the garrison would have more chances to prevail. The PPP hardened its position calculating the acrimony of elder Sharif with the garrison. That turned out to be the biggest blunder on their part, as they did not account for the changes taking place within the PML-N and the new emerging power blocks within the party.

Shahid Khaqan Abbasi was initially told by establishment-weary Nawaz Sharif not to drag the matter to infinity as this could take the issue to the ECP but the man from the mountain prevailed. “Let me play this game,” he told the elder Sharif. “Let me call their bluff,” he insisted.

Shahid Khaqan, in his next meeting, told Khurshid Shah that his names were not good enough. Khushid Shah was furious. He threatened to hold a press conference. He even taunted the PML-N that they were about to nominate their next caretaker PM in alliance with their arch enemy PTI, but Abbasi would not budge.

He told Shah that they had been bitten too many times by Zardari. The latest example was their National Accountability Bureau nominee Javed Iqbal who was giving the PML-N leadership cold sweats every day. Judging the new power play by the man from Murree, Asif Zardari tried to play it down. He told media that it really did not matter to him who the caretaker prime minister would be as the ECP was more powerful now than the caretaker prime minister. “Oh really?” asked Abbasi. “If it is not important then just accept one of our nominees,” he said to the PPP. “Give in, or we will go to the parliamentary committee to decide on the matter,” Abbasi told Shah. At the same time, he kept Sharif fully abreast of the situation, persuading him that he, too, knew a trick or two. Why should we always be on the giving end, Abbasi asked his party stalwarts.

Last week, Abbasi told Shah to get ready for the parliamentary committee. The outgoing prime minister told the PPP in clear terms that the matter was not going to the ECP. “In the parliamentary committee, we have four members, you only have two. All we have to do is either persuade a Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM) member or agree to a reasonable nominee of the PTI and you are gone.”

To add to the pressure, Abbasi asked Speaker Ayaz Sadiq to go ahead and form the parliamentary committee. As Abbasi dialled up the pain, the PPP panicked. Asif Zardari gave in as he always does when he cannot fight anymore. Shah was actually relieved when he saw Zardari bowing down as he was only bidding at his party chief’s behalf. So when Ayaz Sadiq called up Shah, who was in Karachi, to discuss the parliamentary committee names, he was stunned and discussed it with Zardari. The former president asked Shah to clear the stand-off and avoid defeat. Face saving was needed. Sadiq, who acted as the super glue during the 24th Amendment to allow new delimitations on the provisional results of the census, rushed to clear the impasse.

Shah dashed to Islamabad to have the last round of dialogue to decide the caretaker prime minister on Monday morning, May 28 at the Prime Minister House.

Abbasi repeated the names of Tassaduq Jilani and former State Bank Governor Shamshad Akhtar. Shah was not pleased. And then the man of the mountains played his last power move by pulling out of the rabbit from his hat. Boom. Nasirul Mulk, whose name was discussed earlier but not discussed much, was brought up. Nasirul Mulk, the mild mannered man, known for judicial restraint who wrote the note of dissent during 21st Amendment verdict supporting the authority of the parliament to enact any amendment, respecting the supremacy of the parliament, was the saving grace for all.

Around 11 am, soon after the meeting ended, a fly on the wall of the highest hill of the capital whispered into the ear of this scribe. The deal is done.

An hour and a half later, making full use of the democratic optics, outgoing Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi, Leader of the Opposition Khurshid Shah pulled Speaker Ayaz Sadiq to the podium in the parliament to announce that politicians were fully capable of practicing the politics of the possible. To give it a healing touch, Abbasi asked Shah to announce the Oscar. Nasirul Mulk it was. The rest, as they say, is history.

The writer is a journalist based in Islamabad